Thursday, October 18, 2018

When is a consistent account in science good enough?

We often want our accounts in science to be consistent with the facts.  Even if we can't explain all the current facts, we can always hope to say, truthfully, that our knowledge is imperfect but our current theory is at least largely true....or something close to that....until some new 'paradigm' replaces it.

It is also only natural to sneer at our forebears' primitive ideas, of which we, naturally, now know much better.  Flat earth?  Garden of Eden?  Phlebotomy?  Phlogiston?  Four humors?  Prester John, the mysterious Eastern Emperoro who will come to our rescue?  I mean, really!  Who could ever have believed such nonsense?

Prester John to the rescue (from Br Library--see Wikipedia entry)
In fact, leaders among our forebears accepted these and much else like it, took them as real, sought them for solace from life's cares not just because they were promised (as in religious figures) but as earthly answers.  Or, to seem impressively knowledgeable, found arcane ways to say "I dunno" without admitting it.  And, similarly, many used ad hoc 'explanations' for personal gain--as self-proclaimed gurus, promisers of relief from life's sorrows or medical woes (usually, if you cross their palms with silver first).

Even in my lifetime in science, I've seen forced after-the-fact 'explanations' of facts, and the way a genuine new insight can show how wrong those explanations were, because the new insight accounts for them more naturally or in terms of some other new facts, forces, or ideas.  Continental drift was one that had just come along in my graduate school days.  Evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics are archetypes of really new ideas that transformed how our forebears had explained what is now our field of endeavor.

Such lore, and our more broad lionizing of leading political, artistic or other similarly transformative figures, organizes how we think.  In many ways it gives us a mythology, or ethnology, that leads us to order success into a hierarchy of brilliant insights.  This, in turn, and in our careerist society, provides an image to yearn for, a paradigm to justify our jobs, indeed our lives, make them meaningful--make them important in some cosmic sense, and really worth living.

Indeed, even ordinary figures from our parents, to the police, generals, teachers, and politicians have various levels of aura as idols or savior figures, who provide comforting answers to life's discomfiting questions.  It is natural for those burdened by worrisome questions to seek soothing answers.

But of course, all is temporary (unless you believe in eternal heavenly bliss).  Even if we truly believe we've made transformative discoveries or something like that during our lives, we know all is eventually dust.  In the bluntest possible sense, we know that the Earth will some day destruct and all our atoms scatter to form other cosmic structures.

But we live here and now and perhaps because we know all is temporary, many want to get theirs now, and we all must get at least some now--a salary to put food on the table at the very least.  And in an imperfect and sometimes frightening world, we want the comfort of experts who promise relief from life's material ills as much as preachers promise ultimate relief.  This is the mystique often given to, or taken by, medical professionals and other authority figures.  This is what 'precision genomic medicine' was designed, consciously or possibly just otherwise, to serve.

And we are in the age of science, the one True field (we seem to claim) that delivers only objectively true goods; but are we really very different from those in similar positions of other sorts of lore?  Is 'omics any different from other omnibus beliefs-du-jour?  Or do today's various 'omical incantations and promises of perfection (called 'precision') reveal that we are, after all, even in the age of science, only human and not much different from our typically patronized benighted forebears?

Suppose we acknowledge that the latter is, at least to a considerable extent, part of our truth.  Is there a way that we can better use, or better allocate, resources to make them more objectively dedicated to solving the actually soluble problems of life--for the public everyday good, and perhaps less used, as from past to today, to guild the thrones of those making the promises of eternal bliss?

Or does sociology, of science or any other aspect of human life, tell us that this is, simply, the way things are?

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